Equity, Diversity and Inclusion

What is an Employee Resource Group and how can it transform the workplace?

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Kathleen Noreau
Head of Strategic Partnerships and Professional Services, World Economic Forum
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  • Overlooked needs of underrepresented individuals in traditional workplaces can hinder well-being and business outcomes.
  • Employee Resource Groups (ERGs) can be valuable to empower employees to lead change, transform policies and people and foster inclusivity.

In traditional workplaces, the unique needs of underrepresented individuals have often been overlooked. Work hasn't always been designed with women, people of colour, the differently abled or even parents in mind, and this lack of inclusivity can hamper both employee well-being and overall business outcomes. It's essential, therefore, to redesign the culture of work to be more inclusive, creating an environment that supports all employees so that individuals and organizations cannot just survive - but thrive.

You have more power than you think

What does it look like when employees feel seen, heard, and like that they can ask for what they need?

Recently, a pair of young women approached me in our New York office, eager to ask for support in implementing their idea of organizing a group of colleagues to participate in the Mastercard 51st New York Mini 10k. This event is a historic women's road race named after the miniskirt, a symbol of women's liberation.

Their sense of initiative struck a chord with me, as it was exactly that attitude of “roll up your sleeves and do the thing” that got our Employee Resource Group (ERG) started in the first place.

Too often we are waiting for senior leaders to bring forward the ideas and changes necessary to modernize the workplace to serve all. But senior leaders may not be informed of the many ways work could be more inclusive, or of how to make the necessary changes even if they are generally operating with good intentions. It’s true that there are power structures, hierarchies and systems of opression at play and that leaders need to take responsibility for creating those inclusive cultures, I’m not letting them off the hook. What I mean is, in the meantime, while we are waiting for the system to evolve and serve us all - we don’t need to feel powerless. You can lead in place. You can assert some semblance of control and power by taking matters into your own hands, and those of your like-minded colleagues.

This is where the power of an ERG comes into play.

People often ask me “Can we do this? Can we ask for that? Do you think it’s okay to suggest this” and the simple answer is yes. Raising an important idea or suggestion that benefits many members of an organization demonstrates your innate leadership skills and could help you and the world in ways beyond the four figurative walls of your Employee Resource Group.

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An ERG can transform not just policies but people

Over the last six years, our Employee Resource Group - the Women’s Inclusion Network (“WIN”) worked with senior leadership and our People and Culture team to: effectively double women’s paid parental leave in the United States, establish a Code of Conduct for all events, pilot a mentorship program that has now been formalized by the organization and create opportunities for learning and development by hosting upwards of 30 external speakers via our monthly speaker series. I just spoke to a woman at the coffee maker last week who told me that thanks to one of our speed-networking events, she went from intern to full-time employee of the organization in 8 months. Her comment was the highlight of my week.

But the achievement I am most proud of is that moment when we picked our heads up from looking at what we could change internally and recognized the distinct privilege we have working for an organization such as the World Economic Forum. It was that realization that drove us to look outward and think “What change could we champion that would have an even greater impact on the world than just the individual lives of employees in this organization?”

So in 2019, when our organization was gearing up to celebrate its 50th anniversary of the World Economic Forum Annual Meeting in Davos, Switzerland in 2020 our ERG was struck by the idea of how utterly inspiring and satisfying it would be if we were able to declare that we as an organization were setting a target to achieve 50-50 representation of men and women at our 50th anniversary in Davos.

Despite the tight time frame, we sparked a collaborative effort that spanned our Geneva, New York and San Francisco offices, bringing together over 15 people from different time zones to work together on a shared document, filling it with ideas and solutions.

The proposal was then workshopped with a few champions and members of our Managing Board before being presented to the wider board. The result was an organization-wide commitment to doubling women’s participation at the Annual Meeting in Davos by 2030. Since then, we’ve increased women’s participation by 5%, reaching 28% last year and coming incredibly close to that 30% mark, which represents the tipping point at which a more diverse organizational culture becomes self-sustaining and gains momentum.

An ERG in Action

Here are the steps we took to initiate the transformation:

1) Find Your People: We began by gathering a group of women from the office, inviting them to brainstorm improvements for the workplace. By encouraging everyone to share their ideas, we fostered a sense of unity and shared ownership and opened the door to a wide range of possibilities. From there, we started monthly meetings where different people led each session, providing a platform for everyone's voice to be heard and increasing the likelihood that the group would be self-sustaining.

2) Find Your Partners: To maintain momentum and navigate the complexities of organization-wide change, it's crucial to have a partner, or partners, to share the journey with. This not only provides moral support but also allows for a practical division of tasks and the opportunity to bounce ideas off one another, identify blind spots, and have a safe space for ranting and laughing.

3) Create Your Ask: Beginning with a proposal can be a powerful step. By expressing your needs and desires, you demonstrate leadership and assertiveness. This approach also opens a dialogue about why these changes might benefit the organization as a whole.

4) Think Bigger Than Just Your Organization: An ERG's power extends beyond internal change. Don't limit yourself to creating change within the organization, developing a speaker series or volunteering. These things are important but push yourself to also aim for broad, sweeping changes that can impact the wider community.

In our case, these steps led to tangible results not just for the ERG, but for the organization.

Business benefits of Employee Resource Groups (ERGs) include:

1) Improved recruitment and retention: ERGs can serve as a compelling factor for job seekers, enabling the organization to attract top talent and contribute to higher employee retention rates, thanks to the feeling of belonging, support and community they provide for underrepresented employees.

2) Enhanced diversity and inclusion: ERGs provide a platform for underrepresented groups to voice their perspectives and needs, contributing to a more inclusive workplace culture.

3) Create external impact: ERGs can help embed diversity and inclusion in different parts of the organization, drive impact in local communities through volunteer opportunities and help brands to better understand customers and consumers

Image: McKinsey & Company

By creating an environment that supports and values all its employees, an organization can witness significant improvements in both employee satisfaction and business outcomes. An ERG can be a powerful tool to ignite this transformation, demonstrating that individuals within an organization have more power to effect change than they might think.

Gather your people, find your partners, create your ask, and never shy away from thinking big.

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